Michael Kohlhaas

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Beginning of the story
in the volume of novellas from 1810

Michael Kohlhaas is a novella by Heinrich von Kleist . A first fragment appeared in the June 1808 edition of Kleist's literary magazine Phöbus . It was published in full in 1810 in the first volume of Kleist's stories .

The story takes place in the mid-16th century and deals with the horse trader Michael Kohlhaas, who, against an injustice that was done to him to vigilante attacks and this is according to the motto: " fiat iustitia " (dt .: " Justice should be done and the world should perish as well! ”). Ernst Bloch therefore also called Michael Kohlhaas the " Don Quixote of rigorous bourgeois morality".

The historical role model for the figure was Hans Kohlhase .


קולהאס משחרר את כנופיתו ("He dissolves his army"), woodcut by Jacob Pins for the Hebrew-language edition of 1953

Political background

Around 1800, both the foreign policy failures (defeat in the war against Napoleon ) and the unclear domestic political situation (different behavior of German princes towards Napoleon) caused discontent in Prussia . Kleist opposed France decisively, his stance was determined by reform. “Kohlhaas lived in those decades of the early 16th century when the absolutist state began to establish itself, but at the same time the constitutional thinking of the Middle Ages had not yet lost its influence. In the absolutist state there is no longer any room for self-help . This is what distinguishes it from the medieval social system. The medieval Sachsenspiegel expressed not only the right, but even the duty of the individual to reject the unlawful acts of the authorities. Seen from here, one can say that in Kleist Kohlhaas medieval and early absolutist legal ideas are at odds with one another. ”He expressed his legal and political demands in his Kohlhaas without being suspected of political agitation.

The historic Kohlhaas

Heinrich von Kleist processed the story of Hans Kohlhase in his novella. He lived as a merchant in the Brandenburg town of Cölln on the Spree in the 16th century . On October 1, 1532, he went on a trip to the Leipzig Fair. On the way there, however, at the behest of Junker Günther von Zaschwitz (also: Zaschnitz), two of his horses were taken from him on the grounds that he had stolen them. Kohlhase tried to take legal action against it. Settlement negotiations took place on May 13, 1533 at Düben Castle, but did not lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. One of the main reasons was that the Knight von Zaschwitz had died in the meantime and his heirs refused to pay adequate compensation. For this reason Kohlhase declared the feud in 1534 and it is reported that he burned down houses in Wittenberg. He committed other crimes. He was finally seized and publicly executed in Berlin on March 22, 1540.

Heinrich von Kleist did not remain authentic in his description of the events, as the investigation files from 1539 were not accessible to him.



The person constellation of Michael Kohlhaas

The respected horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas, who lives in Brandenburg , travels to Saxony with riding horses intended for sale . On the way, however, he is stopped at the castle of Junker Wenzel von Tronka with the arbitrary demand for a pass . After Kohlhaas found out in Dresden that there was no such permit, he found out on his return that his two horses, which were left behind as pledges , had become emaciated due to their hard work in the fields and thus become worthless. Kohlhaas files a lawsuit against this injustice with the Elector of Saxony, which, however, is dismissed at the urging of the von Tronka family. Further attempts by Kohlhaasen to make himself heard end in the death of his wife.

Disappointed that he does not get any legal justice, Kohlhaas begins a campaign of revenge against the Junker Wenzel von Tronka after the loss of his wife. He attacks the Tronkenburg and kills all residents. The Junker himself, who was the only one to escape, he followed with a growing army, first to the monastery of Erlabrunn and finally to Wittenberg , which he set on fire several times. Following a rumor, Kohlhaas finally arrives in Leipzig, which he also sets on fire. As a result, there is a conversation with Martin Luther , who previously publicly condemned Kohlhaas. After he described his situation to him, however, Luther obtained Kohlhaas' safe conduct to Dresden by means of a petition so that he could bring the complaint to court again.

In Dresden Kohlhaas initially lived undisturbed in the protection of safe conduct. In the meantime, the scattered remnants of his disbanded army have gathered and roam the country, robbing and plundering. Its leader is Johann Nagelschmidt, who pretends to be the governor and confidante of Kohlhaas. In fact, Kohlhaas wanted to let him down because of various atrocities. Only the dismissal of the heap due to the amnesty saved Nagelschmidt's life. Kohlhaas can refute the suspicion of collaborating with Nagelschmidt. Soon after, however, Kohlhaas notices that he is under house arrest. A messenger from Nagelschmidt reached him. He wants to free him from Dresden and offers him command of the group that has meanwhile got into military distress. Kohlhaas accepts this offer, but only so that he can escape from Dresden in order to embark "to the Levant or the East Indies". The authorities intercepted both the message and the response. This ultimately provides the reason for his arrest.

At the time, the King of Poland, who was in conflict with the House of Saxony, asked the Elector of Brandenburg to take action against it together. Now the Elector of Brandenburg is running the Kohlhaas affair. In order to save him from further injustice, he offers him another fair trial. This leads to the conviction of Junkers von Tronka for damages, but at the same time Kohlhaas is sentenced to death for breach of the peace .

Shortly before the execution experienced by the Elector of Saxony, to Kohlhaas that holding a gypsy - prophecy is. This includes the name of the last elector from his house, the date when he will lose his kingdom and the name by which the kingdom will end. All attempts to take this prophecy from him fail. On the scaffold, Kohlhaas finally swallows the note with the prophecy, making it finally inaccessible to the elector, who then suffers a nervous breakdown.

Areas of tension

Michael Kohlhaas sees himself at the mercy of opposites, some of which still exist today:

Different legal conceptions

Michael Kohlhaas reflects on the constant conflict between different legal conceptions, especially those of the Middle Ages and those of the Enlightenment . Kohlhaas himself seems to be close to those of enlightened philosophers, such as John Lockes , in his thoughts and actions . His vigilante justice could accordingly be interpreted as an exit from the social contract : after the state has failed to fulfill its duty to create justice, Kohlhaas takes the law into his own hands. Kohlhaas: "Offended [...] I call the one who is denied the protection of the law! [...] and whoever denies it to me throws me out into the wilderness of the desert; he gives me [...] the club that protects myself " .

Kohlhaas' violations of the law can also be justified by the philosophy of Locke, who writes in “The natural rights of man” : “Everyone has the right to punish those who violate the law to the extent necessary to prevent new injury ” . On the other hand, Kohlhaas' actions are disproportionate to the injustices committed against him; Many innocent and innocent bystanders are harmed in particular by his murderous distilleries. In addition to his sense of justice, factors such as B. hurt pride or the desire for revenge (for his killed wife) play an essential role.

Kohlhaasen's enlightenment thoughts represent an anachronism . Since Kohlhaas, according to the story, lived in the "middle of the 16th century", i.e. before the Enlightenment, it stands to reason that Kleist projected ideas of his own epoch onto his (historical) literary figure.

Kohlhaasen's legal demand for satisfaction is also contradicting itself - a term that is reminiscent of the (medieval) duel and feud practice. His “Kohlhaas Mandates” also permit such a conclusion; the right to feud , however, was already ineffective in Kohlhaas' time, but this was ignored by large sections of the nobility, from which von Kleist himself came.

Kohlhaas' unwavering desire for justice is expressed in various ways in the course of the story: After the legal path fails and Kohlhaas even loses his wife in the process, he can no longer help himself other than through vigilante justice. In this project, however, he becomes completely excessive, his personal act of revenge against the Junker expands into a bloody campaign against everything and everyone. Kohlhaas again accepted the death sentence that was later imposed on him as a just punishment, which ultimately confirmed that justice was of the highest value to him.


Franz Kafka mentioned the novella in a letter to Felice Bauer :

"Yesterday evening I didn't write to you because it was too late about Michael Kohlhaas (do you know him? If not, then don't read it! I'll read it to you!), Except for a small part that I already do had read the day before yesterday, read on a train. Probably for the tenth time. This is a story that I read with real fear of God, one amazement grips me at the other, were it not for the weaker, sometimes crudely written conclusion that it is something perfect, that perfect that I like to say that it does not exist. (I mean, even every supreme work of literature has a tail of humanity, which, if you want and have an eye for it, easily begins to fidget and disturbs the grandeur and divinity of the whole thing.) "


  • Wilhelm Amann: Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas. Oldenbourg text editions - text, commentary and materials. Oldenbourg, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-637-00794-9 .
  • Wolfgang Barthel: Heinrich von Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas" (1808–1810). Becoming and effect. Kleist-Archiv Sembdner, Heilbronn 1993, ISBN 3-931060-07-1 .
  • Tilman von Brand, Jörg Scherz: Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas. Oldenbourg teaching material Literature - master copies and modules for teaching sequences. Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-637-00796-3 .
  • Tilman von Brand: Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas. Oldenbourg text navigator for students - table of contents, analysis of the text and preparation for high school graduation. Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-637-00795-6 .
  • Tilman von Brand: Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas. Oldenbourg interpretations. Oldenbourg, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-637-00387-3 .
  • Carl August Hugo Burkhardt : The historical Hans Kohlhase and Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas , Leipzig 1864 ( digitized version )
  • Klaus-Michael Bogdal, Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas . Fink, Munich 1981, ISBN 3-7705-1943-4 .
  • Helga Gallas : Michael Kohlhaas' request for a text. The language of the unconscious and the meaning of literature . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1981, ISBN 3-499-25162-0 .
  • Bernhard Greiner: Kleist's Dramas and Stories: Experiments on the 'Fall' of Art . UTB / Francke, Stuttgart / Tübingen / Basel 2000, ISBN 3-8252-2129-6 (UTB) / ISBN 3-7720-2276-6 (Francke).
  • Bernd Hamacher: Explanations and documents: Heinrich von Kleist. Michael Kohlhaas. Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-016026-X .
  • Dirk Jürgens: Text analysis and interpretation of Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas , King's explanations and materials (vol. 421), Hollfeld: C. Bange Verlag 2012, ISBN 978-3-8044-1963-6 .
  • Wolf Kittler: The birth of the partisan from the spirit of poetry: Heinrich von Kleist and the strategy of the wars of liberation . Adult new edition. Kleist Archive Sembdner, Heilbronn 2011, ISBN 978-3-940494-42-9 .
  • Manfred Mitter: Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas. Interpretation impulses. Merkur, Rinteln 2007. Text booklet: ISBN 978-3-8120-0852-5 , CD-ROM: ISBN 978-3-8120-2852-3 .
  • Theodor Pelster: reading key. Heinrich von Kleist: "Michael Kohlhaas". Reclam, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-15-015334-5 .
  • Andrea Rinnert: Michael Kohlhaas. Interpretation aid. German. Stark, Hallbergmoos 2006, ISBN 978-3-89449-500-8 .
  • Ditmar Skrotzki: Is Kleist's story about Kohlhaas really the story of the rebel Kohlhaas? Or: How do you stop the devil who rides through Saxony on two pennies? . Kleist-Archiv Sembdner, Heilbronn 1993, ISBN 3-931060-08-X .
  • Stefanie Tieste: Heinrich von Kleist. His works. Kleist Archive Sembdner, Heilbronn 2009. (Heilbronner Kleist materials for school and teaching, Volume 2. Ed. Günther Emig ), ISBN 978-3-940494-15-3 .
  • Andreas Voßkuhle , Johannes Gerberding: Michael Kohlhaas and the fight for law. In: JuristenZeitung 2012, p. 917 ff.

Film adaptations

In the cinematographic field, films such as Sugarland Express (1974) by Steven Spielberg or Time of Retribution (1985) by Matthew Robbins are attributed to the Kohlhaas motif.

radio play

Audio book

  • 1972: Recording by Südwestfunk, unabridged reading by Günther Sauer
  • 2001: Der Hörverlag - Novellen, read by Rolf Boysen , in this edition also the reading by Michael Kohlhaas
  • 2008: Edition audio book - Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas, complete reading from Klett Verlag
Read by Axel Thielmann, MP3 format
The text output is read, and the CD also contains the entire text as a PDF file.
  • 2008: Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, unabridged audio book, LibriVox
Public domain, i.e. freely available, audio book
The public domain text is read, which is available at projekt-gutenberg.org.
Available in MP4, MP3 and Ogg

Literary arrangements, adaptations and allusions

In 1828 an adaptation by Gotthilf August von Maltitz was published as a book under the title "Hans Kohlhas".

A play by Willy Winkler Eine Menschen Recht from 1951 was performed in Bad Düben in 1958.

The tragedy Palm Sunday of a Horse Dealer (Egy lócsiszár virágvasárnapja) by the Hungarian writer András Sütő , published in 1975 and processed the story of Michael Kohlhaas in order to shed light on the circumstances of the Ceaușescu regime with a historical example.

In 1978, Frieder Schuller , the then dramaturge of the German theater in Sibiu in Romania , dramatized Kleist's novella under the title "Greetings from Michael Kohlhaas". The first rehearsals took place, but then Schuller received the passport to leave Romania and had to leave Romania. The performance, which dealt with arbitrariness, passport and border conflicts, would have been foreseeably banned in what was then communist Romania.

In her novel Kohlhaas (3rd edition Berlin 2011), first published in 1979, Elisabeth Plessen took up Kleist's story and partially reconstructed it from historical documents and court records. In particular, she describes episodes from Kohlhaas' childhood and youth. The novel received positive reviews and was a sales success.

In the novel Ragtime by Edgar Lawrence Doctorow , the narrative thread about the life of the black musician Coalhouse Walker is clearly based on Michael Kohlhaas , which the first name alludes to. In 1981 the book was directed by Milos Forman filmed .

Christoph Hein related the subject to the GDR in The newer (happier) Kohlhaas. Report on a legal trade from the years 1972/73 (In: Ders .: Nachtfahrt and early morning . Berlin 1994, pp. 81-101).

The story of Michael Kohlhaas plays a decisive role in Pascal Mercier's novel The Piano Tuner (1998). There he is not only one of the main characters and source of inspiration for an opera, but the theme of vigilante justice and the different conceptions of justice run through the entire novel as a leitmotif.

Another literary adaptation is the historical novel by Corinna Bethke Up to God's Judgmental Seat: The Feud of Hans Kohlhase (Halle 2007).

In 2015, Yael Ronen's adaptation of The Kohlhaas Principle was premiered at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Carl August Hugo Burkhardt : The historical Hans Kohlhase and Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas . Leipzig 1864 ( zlb.de [accessed October 16, 2018]).
  2. Section Unruly Idea, Conformity of Will with End Purpose in the essay On the Concept of Wisdom . Complete edition GA in 16 volumes, Suhrkamp, ​​Volume 10, 1953, pp. 355–395, p. 376. Cf. Bloch, About legal passion within the positive law. Kohlhaas and the Ernst of Minos , in: Natural Law and Human Dignity, GA Vol. 6, ibid. 1961, 1972, pp. 93-96; Excerpt from Rainer Siegle, Ed .: Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas. With materials. Klett, Stuttgart 1979 a. ö., Series: Editions. ISBN 3123515001 , pp. 138-140
  3. Verbatim excerpt from the afterword by Paul Michael Lützer in Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Kleist, Reclam, 1982, p. 121.
  4. Model for Kleist's novella - The Execution of Hans Kohlhase by Ulrike Rückert in Deutschlandfunk on March 22, 2015, accessed on January 10, 2017
  5. Reclam edition, p. 44, line 13 ff.
  6. Kafka's letter to Felice Bauer from February 9-10, 1913.
  7. Erich Heller, Jürgen Born (ed.): Letters to Felice and other correspondence from the engagement time. 11th edition 2009 (paperback), p. 291 f.
  8. ^ "Eternal struggle for justice" - New in the cinema: "Michael Kohlhaas" by Arnaud de Pallières , review by Jörg Taszman in Deutschlandradio Kultur on September 18, 2013, accessed September 19, 2013
  9. ^ Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean. WordPress.com, November 20, 2009, accessed April 4, 2013 .
  10. ^ Heinrich von Kleist - Michael Kohlhaas - From an old chronicle (1810). Retrieved June 28, 2020 .
  11. MDZ reader | Band | Hans Kohlhas / Maltitz, Gotthilf A. von | Hans Kohlhas / Maltitz, Gotthilf A. von. Retrieved November 2, 2019 .